From Sri Lanka to Stormont: Gee addressing a Human Rights Day event last year on “what rights mean to you”. Photo / Alice Neeson. Creative Commons.
The United Nations Human Rights Council last month mandated the UN high commissioner for human rights, NaviPillay, to carry out an investigation into Sri Lanka, where government has resisted any independent scrutiny of the events at the end of the state’s war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, when tens of thousands are thought to have died.
What would this mean to the many Tamil diaspora dispersed across the globe? One young Tamil, who has fetched up in another of the world’s trouble-spots, spoke to openSecurity.
"The profound truth is that there cannot be a credible inquiry in Sri Lanka by its own government, which has effectively destroyed the independent judicial system.”
Geerthanshan (‘Gee’) Manoharan has been living in Belfast since 2012. As a teenager, Gee took a lead from his father, a prominent human-rights activist, and began to campaign on human-rights issues, highlighting the plight of families of missing persons. A number of young people have been “disappeared” from his home town in Sri Lanka.
In Northern Ireland he has made many friends through volunteering with organisations like Conservation Volunteers and Habitat for Humanity. He has become a key member of the Belfast Friendship Club, an integration initiative set up by the South Belfast Roundtable. At Belfast City Hall last September, on UN International Day of Peace, the youth charity Springboard presented him with a Community Inspiration medal, describing him as “a perfect Northern Ireland ambassador for peace”. Earlier in the year, an effective campaign, “Belfast Needs Gee”, was mounted when he was threatened with deportation, garnering wide public and political support.
Gee told openSecurity: “With all my heart I want this International inquiry to be heard, mainly to restore justice against all the human-rights abuses made by both parties during the last civil war and the ongoing disappearances and violence against innocent individuals and human-rights defenders.”
At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting held controversially in Colombo last November, the UK prime minister, David Cameron, had urged the Sri Lankan government to mount an independent inquiry on war crimes. “But our government simply cannot or will not do so, because the first accused would have to be the president and his brothers. The profound truth is that there cannot be a credible inquiry in Sri Lanka by its own government, which has effectively destroyed the independent judicial system.”
Gee went on: “So I personally believe that the international inquiry can make a huge difference for lots of individuals and families who are spending most of their time in intense sorrow. I have sought sanctuary in a country far away from where I was born, I’ve nowhere to go and I’m waiting in limbo.
“It’s the same for so many other people anxious to return to their homeland—if only they could do so without fear. Yet just recently the Sri Lankan government banned 16 groups and more than 400 people, almost every one of Tamil origin, were blacklisted.”
Paul Hainsworth is chair of the Belfast group of Amnesty International and one of its network of country co-ordinators, covering Indonesia. He has come to know Gee personally through the Belfast Friendship Club and Gee addressed the Belfast Amnesty group in January. At the event, he highlighted the difficult human-rights situation in his native country and pointed to the challenges facing citizens in securing justice.
Hainsworth said: “Participants got the clear impression of engaging with a serious and compassionate young man who had a genuine concern for the future of his country and for the plight of his fellow countrymen and peers—both within the country and those in danger of being returned there.”